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March 17, 2010 at 6:19 PM

MIX10: The hit list of metaphors from Microsoft Researcher Bill Buxton

mix buxton1_web.jpgLAS VEGAS — Bill Buxton is the Doc Brown of Microsoft – a mane of white hair, high energy on stage, a mind that flutters like butterfly from topic to topic that somehow ends up landing back on his message, which is about designing technology for humans. He spoke to Web designers and developers at MIX on Tuesday, and sat down Monday for an interview.

“My job is to say, ‘How do you avoid the tail of technology wagging the head of the human?’ ” Buxton said in an interview.

Buxton, a principal researcher for Microsoft Research based in Toronto, Canada, spends 25 percent of his time working with product teams across the whole company. At the more theoretical level, he discusses technology as a human prosthesis, but he favors metaphors that are as far away from technology as possible.

Here are some of Buxton’s more memorable metaphors from his MIX keynote, workshop and interview:

The violin bow and the mouse. “There’s a huge history with instrument design. People say you can’t build a mouse for over $15. People won’t pay for it,” Buxton said in his Tuesday keynote speech. “But the bow of this violin costs over $10,000. These are people who don’t make any money. They’re musicians, not developers or computer scientists. But the value is there.” Buxton said to the audience of Web developers and designers, “Soyez un luthier.” Translated: Be a lute builder.

The Catalan flag and multitouch. Multitouch is the touch-screen technology that allows you to put two fingers on an iPhone and pinch or pull to zoom in and out. During his Tuesday keynote, Buxton credits it to the Count of Barcelona Wilfred the Hairy in 897. During a battle, King Charles the Bald dipped his fingers into Wilfred’s war wounds and dragged his fingers down a golden shield, leaving blood streaks on the shield. Red bars across a yellow background became the flag of Catalan, which is now part of Spain. Buxton called it the first case of multitouch.

The Seattle Public Library and software building. How the team of architects, engineers and finance experts worked together to build the cantilevered, glass Seattle Public Central Library building should serve as a model of building technology products, Buxton said in an afternoon workshop Tuesday. He calls it BXT – business, experience and technology.

iPad reviews and ski reviews. Buxton said at a Tuesday workshop he’s frequently asked what he thinks of Apple’s iPad. First, Buxton said, it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to talk about it because he works for Microsoft. Second, he can’t say anything about it anyway without trying it out first hand. “Would you evaluate a ski resort from watching ski videos and review it? If you were a theatre reviewer for the New York Times, would you review a play if you just saw a video?”

Book reviews and tech reviews. Buxton said in his Tuesday workshop that technology needs to be reviewed with the same attention to social context as any book, play or movie. “If you reviewed a book by Margaret Atwood the way we review digital technologies, [you would say,] ‘It has a very nice cover, it fits in my pocket, nice 12-point font, look at those serifs, by the way, look at that color.’ ”

The Fosbury Flop and innovation. Dick Fosbury was the track athlete who pioneered doing the high jump head first and won the gold at the 1968 Olympics. Buxton said in an interview Monday, “He redefined [high] jumping. He didn’t just win, he creamed the competition. He literally set the bar,” Buxton said. “That’s worthy of anything we’re doing today. … When I look at innovation, there’s two approaches: One is accelerated evolution. … The other is Fosbury. It’s surprising obviousness.”

Incidentally, my dad did the high jump in high school in Hong Kong before Fosbury changed the sport. Later, when he moved to New York and I was still in diapers, he decided he wanted to high jump a tennis court net with the old scissors jump technique. Surprisingly, obviously a bad idea. He tripped and broke his leg.

Photo of Bill Buxton at MIX: Microsoft

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